There are different ways to employ alternative medical therapies. Sometimes they are used in place of conventional, scientific medicine. More commonly, they are used along with conventional therapy and simply given the credit for any improvement. However, in either case there is frequently little or no research data to show whether or not such therapies are beneficial or harmful. A couple of recent studies addressing this issue have appeared which found no benefit to so-called integrative use of CAM therapies and significant harm to the replacement of conventional cancer treatment with these alternative approaches.
Han E, Johnson N, Delamelena T, Glissmeyer M, Steinbock K. Alternative therapy used as primary treatment for breast cancer negatively impacts outcomes. Ann Surg Oncol 2011;Jan 12 [Epub ahead of print].
The first study looked at 61 patients with treatable breast cancer who either declined or delayed conventional therapy in favor of alternative approaches. The mortality was significantly increased and the success of treatment greatly decreased in these patients. Those who declined conventional therapy altogether did especially poorly.
Judson P, Dickson E, Xiong Y, Peterson J, Geller M, Ghebre R et al. A prospective, randomized trial of complementary/alternative medicine for women with ovarian cancer [Abstracts Presented for the 41st Annual Meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, Annual Meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists]. Gynecol Oncol 2010; 116(S2):S142-S143.
The second study looked at 43 women with ovarian cancer who were treated with chemotherapy alone or chemotherapy with hypnosis, healing touch, and massage. No differences in objective measures nor in quality of life were found between the standard care and the “integrative” care groups.
Obviously, these studies only involved a limited number of patients with particular conditions and particular CAM approaches, so they cannot be viewed as anything like a definitive statement on the value, if any, of alternative therapies alone or in combination with conventional cancer treatment. However, these alternatives are often marketed with confident pronouncements about their value that go well beyond any claims that could be justified by the available evidence. If CAM proponents wish to see their therapies used as replacements for conventional treatment or even as adjuncts to it, the onus is on them to demonstrate the safety and the benefits of such approaches.
These studies clearly do not support the use of these therapies, particularly when substituted for established treatments. Instead they show that there is a great danger in replacing treatments with known risks and benefits with treatments that have not demonstrated their worth, and that we cannot simply assume that even benign therapies like massage will necessarily benefit patients with cancer.